MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) — Josef Newgarden, clad head-to-toe in solid black, was the last championship contender to arrive at an IndyCar event already underway. He climbed the stairs, saw challenger Alexander Rossi bogged down in interviews and spread his arms wide as he made his entrance.
"Good evening," Newgarden bellowed, pausing just long enough to pat Rossi on the back.
It was a paradoxical moment for the IndyCar points leader, who controls his own fate in Sunday's season finale on the historic Laguna Seca road course. A finish of fourth or better gives the Tennessee native his second championship in three years.
As Newgarden has grown from a wide-eyed rookie in 2012 to an elite IndyCar driver, he has found the spotlight to be contradictory to his introverted personality. He also believes Team Penske is viewed by many as the "Death Star" of motorsports, a race team so dominant fans liken it to the galactic superweapon from "Star Wars."
Newgarden is a willing participant in facilitating that image, but he actually prefers to keep his head down and retreat into privacy. He briefly relocated to North Carolina when he was hired by Penske in 2017 but has since returned to Nashville with his fiancée.
"I mean, I don't feel like we're the Death Star, but I've heard people call it that," Newgarden said. "I think what everyone has for Team Penske is a deep amount of respect. But I just see a lot of people hate them because they think they've won so much and in so many different series, specifically IndyCar, they've just dominated so much over the years that I don't think people like it.
"But that's also sport, right?" he added. "You want to see the underdogs win or the mid-dogs. It's kind of tough to be in that position because I think if people maybe liked you before joining that team, they don't like you now because you're part of that group."
The IndyCar championship will be decided in the finale for the 14th consecutive season, with Newgarden holding a 41-point lead over Rossi, a California native. Also in the mix is Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden's teammate, at 42 points out and reigning series champion Scott Dixon, who trails Newgarden by 85 points.
The race is worth double points, a quirk Dixon used to his advantage to snatch the title away from Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 when he overcame a 47-point deficit by winning the race.
Dixon's comeback is the model Rossi has focused on as he tries to avoid a second consecutive season finishing second in the standings. For Rossi or Pagenaud to win the championship, Newgarden must finish sixth or worse and they must win.
That strategy fits Rossi just fine because in his mind, "a lot of people say winning isn't everything. I completely disagree."
"Every time you go on the track, you have to go out there and try to win the race and be better than everyone else and that doesn't change whether it's the first race of the season, the Indy 500 or the season finale," he said.
Since winning is the only thing that matters to Rossi, he's earned the moniker "Angry Alex" for his scowl and short temper following defeat. Rossi said those reactions are in the moment, only happen after disappointment in racing and that he really isn't an angry person by nature.
"I was pretty (angry) during the (Indianapolis) 500 but I don't think globally outside of that," Rossi said. "It's never anything personally related to anyone."
Rossi badly wants to win an IndyCar championship, and winning it at Laguna Seca would be fitting for his family. His father brought Rossi to his first race at the picturesque, 2.258-mile permanent road course as a child and the venue became an annual outing for the aspiring racer.
Laguna Seca last hosted Indy cars in 2004 and only four current drivers — Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay — have raced the circuit in elite cars. Of the three other title contenders, Newgarden has never raced at Laguna Seca, Pagenaud has only done it in a sports car and Rossi competed in the Skip Barber Driving School program.
But Rossi, from Auburn, California, has a unique familiarity with the circuit from his many years as a spectator and will have a large contingent of family and friends at the track all weekend. He's trying to remove himself from the party atmosphere and focus on taking the title away from Newgarden.
"Just the subconscious confidence that comes along with it being a familiar place is a good thing," Rossi said. "Whether it translates to anything is impossible to say, but you know, it's not a completely foreign environment for me and it's a place I love coming to. So we'll see what happens."
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